PITTSBURGH – First came the take-out slide by former Chicago Cubs outfielder Chris Coghlan on Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Jung Ho Kang. Then the wild-card game featured the benches clearing after several hit batters, and now we have another chapter in the budding rivalry between the Cubs and Pirates.
Both benches were warned on Monday night after Ben Zobrist was hit by a pitch from Pirates hurler Kyle Lobstein in the seventh inning of the Cubs' eventual 7-2 win. That came after Cubs starter Jason Hammel hit Starling Marte one inning earlier and Pirates starter Gerrit Cole hit Addison Russell in the fifth. To many observers, the Zobrist plunking looked intentional.
“As a team you’re trying to think ‘Was it intentional or was it not?’ but I think in that situation it was pretty clear,” Zobrist said afterward.
Hammel was adamant his inside pitch was simply thrown so as to not give Marte a ball to hit, as the Cubs were nursing a lead. It was the last pitch Hammel would throw, so hitting someone was probably furthest from his mind -- he wanted to stay in the game. In any case this isn’t the first time the Cubs believe they were intentionally targeted. Last October, reliever Tony Watson hit Jake Arrieta after Arrieta plunked two Pirates earlier in the wild-card game. That’s when the benches cleared, though order was restored quickly.
“Both of them looked like it [intentional],” Hammel said. “That’s all I can say ... It’s a very heated rivalry.”
That’s the biggest takeaway from the whole episode. The Cubs and Pirates aren’t backing down, as neither wants anything to do with the wild-card game again. They're gunning for the division, and every contest in the season series has meaning because of that goal, which boosts the intensity.
“It’s a situation no one wants to be in,” Arrieta said before Monday’s game. “The goal is to win the division. Getting off to a hot start is the way you go about doing that. We’re where we intended to be at this point in the season.”
The Cubs are four games ahead of Pittsburgh but with roughly five months of baseball yet to be played. If Game 1 between the teams is any indication, we’re in for an epic season series despite the final score on Monday. The Cubs weren’t challenged in this one, perhaps making it easier for the Pirates to retaliate. But the visitors weren’t mad -- save manager Joe Maddon -- as much as their spider sense is tingling now after getting hit by two balls -- thrown six months apart -- that weren't released from the respective pitchers without some purpose. Maddon bit his tongue during his entire press conference after the win.
“It’s part of the game,” he said. “It happens and then you have to have a little fun with it.”
Maddon explained the fun came in yelling at the opposition, specifically Lobstein.
“I was able to vent a little bit,” he continued. “It’s always fun to vent, isn’t it? We’ve all been there. You have to vent on occasion. It’s the worst thing you could possibly do for your health, long term, is to hold that stuff in. So I wanted to get it out.”
Maddon kept moving the subject further and further away from the hit batters -- he clearly didn’t want to start a war of words -- discussing everything from the Pirates uniforms (he likes them) to his high school rivalry between Hazelton and West Hazelton (Hazelton won a big game 14-0 after a snowstorm). Eventually, he let reporters in on his obfuscation.
“I’m being this way so I don’t have to comment on the hit by [pitch],” Maddon said. “That’s the truth.”
Maddon did let Lobstein know what he was thinking, though. Then, just to mess with everyone, Maddon challenged a slide play at second base in the bottom of the inning. In fact, both teams challenged on the play, adding more than five minutes to the game.
"I had no clue what I was doing -- I just knew I could challenge,” Maddon said in all seriousness.
It was that type of night, as Game 1 of 19 between the teams lived up to the hype even if the crowd in attendance did not. Only 18,376 paid to see the game, perhaps due to the Pittsburgh Penguins playing a playoff game down the street. The fans that stayed away missed a renewal of a rivalry that isn’t going away anytime soon. More intentional pitches and more cross words might be exchanged again next time.
“Our whole team is going to take exception to it,” Zobrist said. “Joe took exception to it and I think a lot of other guys, too.”
Maddon added of the rivalry: “This is legitimate. It’s great.”
Round 1 went to the Cubs, but this is a 19-round affair.